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Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on The Campbell Conversations (Pt 2)

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, left, speaks with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher continues the discussion with Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.  The governor frankly describes the political challenges he's encountered as governor, and the effects of his party switch after being elected.  He also discussed his state's relatively smooth roll-out of Obamacare, and his political future. 

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations.  I’m joined today by Lincoln Chafee, the Governor of Rhode Island, in a continuation of the conversation that we began last week. Last week we discussed the national political scene, in particular, the problem of the polarization and lack of cooperation between the two major parties. Today we’ll focus more on his time as governor. Governor Chafee was elected to the governorship in 2010 as an independent, having left the Republican Party in 2007.  Last year he joined the Democratic Party. Governor Chafee, welcome back to the program.

Lincoln Chafee (LC): Thank you Grant.

GR: Rhode Island has been one of the models for the state healthcare insurance exchanges under Obamacare. How did you approach that? What decisions were most important in accomplishing that?

LC: Well, first of all we passed the exchanges through the House but it failed in the Senate, and they adjourned without passing a bill to form an insurance exchange and it got hung up on some abortion language they just couldn’t resolve.  So I instituted it by executive order, and then we got a good team working on it and now we are leading the country in sign-ups to this exchange.

We’ve had tremendous success in communicating with our people. I have to say that this has not been a partisan issue in Rhode Island, thank goodness. The detractors are few. It seemed like everybody in Rhode Island said let’s try it - Democrats, Republicans, Independents -- let’s try something different from the old escalating insurance rates from Blue Cross or whatever your insurance might be, going to the emergency room to get your primary care.  Let’s try this, and we have had great success.

And it is very interesting that the level of attention our citizens are paying to the details of the different plans that are offered, which is flabbergasting as we look at how this is unfolding.  How the people are reading the fine print and paying attention, and making really good decisions on the kind of insurance they want to pick on the exchange.

GR: And why do you think the Republicans in the state aren’t digging in on this, because this seems to be one of the big issues across the country and it is - as you mentioned last week -- going to be one of the big issues in the 2014 mid-term elections.

LC: The Republicans in Rhode Island seem to get into gun issues and other social issues; thank goodness they have not focused on this one.

GR: You started out your political career on the Warwick City Council then you became its mayor. You also served a term in the United States Senate.  Now you are a state governor.  So you have seen it all. At heart, do you think you are more of a legislator or an executive?

LC: I’d say executive. I really loved my time as mayor.  I had, in my seven years as mayor, four different council presidents, all very different. And I just enjoyed working with them. I had to have Democratic votes to get things passed.  I loved the challenge.  The economy was better in the 90’s; it helps to have that wind behind your back. It’s been harder being governor with the wind -- with the economy being difficult in Rhode Island – more in your face. But I do love it.

GR: And you have also served at all three levels of government--local, state, national. Which level of government do you think works the best given its role?

LC: I would say the state, despite the challenges with the economy that we have had in Rhode Island, and as I have said earlier, some of the small issues that have become big issues unnecessarily.  Despite all that there is so much that is happening at the state level, the health exchanges we are doing there. Even with climate change, even with the immigration. I mean these should be really federal issues. We are doing it state by state.

It’s been fun working with all the other governors, I love going to the governors’ conferences and networking with Republicans and Democrats. Our New England governors have a great group and we even work with the Eastern Canadian Provinces.

GR: And having been on both sides of the legislature-executive divide what do you think is the most important thing that executives under-appreciate about legislators and their jobs, and vice-versa?

LC: Often it’s all about ego, you have got to listen and talk to each other.  They run as hard for their seats.  I worked just as hard to become mayor as a councilman, and they worked just as hard to become a state representative or become a state senator. They want to be listened to, they want to be talked to and included in the process and that is just natural human emotion.

GR: Now you have announced relatively recently that you are not going to run for reelection as governor. Is this it for you in terms of elected political office?

LC: I’m still feeling young and I have covered the gamut – at local, state and federal, so we’ll see. I don’t have any plans.

GR: Is there a particular office that you could see yourself running for hypothetically, if you were going to run for something?

LC: Not at this time. I have put my heart and soul into this job and as governor. I’m looking forward to catching my breath at the end of this term. Four good years.

GR: And I have a more delicate question for you now, but I do want to ask it. I couldn’t find an especially recent report of your approval ratings, but the approval ratings that I did find up until a few months back were relatively low, as far as executives go. What’s been driving that?

LC: Certainly, getting undocumented students to be able to go to higher education was a huge controversial issue--I thought totally unnecessarily.  Of course we want our youngsters to go on to higher education to be able to get that in-state tuition.  And we had a capital punishment case. I have said over and over again I’m against capital punishment, and you can vote for me or against me based on that if you want. But that erupted.  And I put up the “holiday tree.”  This is just nonsense a diversionary issue -- the last thing I want to be involved with is a war on Christmas.  And of course gay marriage and marriage equality.  These are some of the issues that I think have been strangely controversial.  They make a lot of sense in Rhode Island, and to any community. You ask your politicians how they feel on these issues.  I answered honestly, and I was asked all these questions when I was running – on immigration, and in-state tuition, and and gay marriage and capital punishment. Once I get elected I am going to do what I said I was going to do in the campaign.

GR: Do you think that perhaps your changing parties -- being Republican, and then an independent, and then a Democrat – had an effect?  You lose the loyalists across all three -- you know, “we don’t really know where the guy is and where he is going.”  Is that an issue?

LC: Yes, I talked about the wind being in my face. The economy, my predecessor having not made the investments in cities, towns and in higher education and in investing in the failed venture with the baseball player. These are all factors, and not really having the media – they seem not to focus on the core issues. So you add all those things together and it’s a little stronger wind in my face than I have experienced in my other political offices.  But now it is interesting to hear those candidates that are running for governor saying everything – they support gay marriage, they support in-state tuition. There are other Democrats that are running.  They support the investments that I’m making in education and in infrastructure. It is exactly what I have been saying in my tenure as governor, and now the other candidates are saying.

GR: Do you think that the approval ratings have affected your decision not to seek reelection?

LC: Yes, without a doubt. I mean, you can’t ignore that. And the ability to raise money.  I do think it’s a marathon, and I think the investments that I have been making, the tough decisions that I have been making, I think are going to be vindicated. And it’s just time – my family and I talked it over, and we have been at this for a long time. We have been all over this in all the various offices, and it is time to take a break.

GR: Do you get a sense that [the decision not to run] gives you a space that you might not have had before? It goes back to the problems of polarization between the parties, the nastiness.  You take some of that off the table here. Do you see a difference now in your office as governor?

LC: Yes, absolutely. Just having the time, the money, and also being a new Democrat going to every Democratic event. Once I became a Democrat I had to go out and meet my new party in Rhode Island, every spaghetti supper and breakfast. So having the time, not fund raising and doing some of those political events, is very beneficial to focus on the issues and not be in the middle of the partisan warfare.

GR: I was told to ask you this by a constituent in Rhode Island.  When you leave office will you still see Ernie the barber?

LC: Of course! Of course!

GR: And I imagine then that like a lot of barbers this fellow Ernie, whom I’ve never met, likes to give political advice. So what advice has Ernie been giving you lately?

LC: Well my first budget – because I had to get the revenue -- my predecessor had done nothing on the revenue side, it had all been on cuts. Rhode Island was suffering. As a result I had to go into revenue and one of those was taxing haircutters. (Laughs) So I asked Ernie about it.  I told him my budget is coming out and it’s going to include expanding our sales tax into services.  [Currently] it’s in goods, as many states are. But if we could lower it and expand it into some services, I thought that made sense, because when the sales tax was put in, most of purchasing was goods, and it’s changed over the sixty years since the sales tax was put in Rhode island. Now it’s majority services, so it just made sense. And we could lower the sales tax.  That was my first budget, and I ran it by Ernie, and he said I’ll pay my fair share if you spend it wisely. And I said we will, we’ll put it into education, we’ll put it into our roads and bridges, we’ll put it in back into our poor communities that have been suffering under these deep cuts.  And he said okay. And so the media--when I said that in my State address--they went down to interview him.  He was good to his word. He said we need government -- we wish we didn’t have to pay any taxes, but are we going to be like back in the 1500’s, with anarchy?

GR: What’s the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

LC: I would say I’m in the fourth quarter. Here as a fourth year as governor, and the fourth quarter in any game is the most important.  So this is an important year as governor.

GR: What’s your worst trait?

LC: I would say that my laid-back style as a politician. The people who’ve criticized me--it’s not on the issues that I stand for. I would say it’s that they don’t understand my laid-back style.

GR: What professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

LC: I would say the immigration – that fights to provide in-state tuition to our undocumented -- that was such a surprise. That it made no sense that these youngsters didn’t have the same chance. They are here; we all know they are here to go on to be able to afford higher education. It’s just common sense.  We want an educated population, whether illegal or not.  Let’s address immigration, but those we know who are here, let’s get them educated.

GR: And you got that through?

LC: Yes we did, but boy oh boy, the opponents. And also politically, it surprised me that those that were the Republicans and those that were opposed to the in-state tuition -- this is a fast growing demographic voting bloc.  I mean just politically, don’t you want to be on board with their issues?  That surprised me.

GR: That was Lincoln Chafee. Governor Chafee, thanks again for extending the conversation with me.

LC: My pleasure Grant. Great program!

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.